Saturday 29 October 2016

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Plucking the Stinger" by Stephanie Rogers

So many scribes write about black-dog and blue-fog periods of their lives. Only a few manage to nail-it with the right words, though. Words need careful preparation, skill and authenticity to truly penetrate. Stephanie Rogers’s poems have all these in abundance. Her poems snag and prompt emotional recalibrations within the reader. I marvelled at the flashy-baited imagery that she deploys within this collection. Her deft poems strike a light at life when you’re in a dark place with the doldrums. The poems express this with acute honesty. Her writing is charged with brevity. She also articulates humour particularly well and juxtaposes it with morbidity, loss, despair and tragedy with great aplomb. This technique creates powerful undercurrents within her prose. There is great contrast within this collection. Wit is powerfully embedded within the text. A dark humorous tone resonates through this collection, which lifts it from the ordinary. The poems conjure the pain and beauty of relationships in a wry and sardonic way. 

Her style suggested to me a kind of collective unconscious at work. The pain of the everyday is mapped out, as well as the thoughts that buzz around our heads that we seldom act upon, but all think about, day to day. The unsaid-said-unsaid of life: Stephanie Rogers digs on this territory with gusto. 

“Another Way the Body Dies” explores this notion: “Part of me thinks I’ve shot someone,” the opening line from the first stanza, rings out with menace. How do you follow that? But she does with this magnificent observation further in the stanza: “My eyes always find what’s rotting around the room”, which I suggest is her deep despair expressed in whimsical fashion. Stasis is never far away in these poems. But this poem in particular mines a depressed state – someone confined to bed like the mafia hitting the mattresses in times of feud: “Back then I slept with a bullet under my tongue”, the final line of the last stanza, reads like a paean to Tom Waits, dirty-realist in its sensibility. That last line oozes a kind of guarded-despair.

Despite this emotional punch, it’s worth noting that all the poems pay close attention to form and have been sequentially worked upon. The aesthetics balance neatly from such fine attention. The lay out pleases the eye, as well as the mind.

Another poem that stands out is “Phone Call”, which is nakedly honest concerning the reactions to bereavement.  We all can identify with it. News of a death is the poem’s subject matter, and it’s both poignant and honest. The narrative is spare and plain which increases its emotional resonance. The narrative is cathartic, writing heals and reading consoles.
It’s obvious that Stephanie Rogers has been deep-mining the self during the construction of these well-crafted poems. I admire the honesty, daring and the raw-punch within her writing. They remind me of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which is an absolute corker! Enough said.

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack is scraping at the underbelly of Irish Diaspora through a collection of short stories for his Creating Writing PhD at Leicester University. His writing influences include: John McGahern, Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Claire Keegan and Colin Barrett.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Review by Kershia Field of "Welcome to Leicester," ed. Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa

[This is the second of two reviews we're running on this new anthology. You can read the first here.]

When I left Leicester after living there for three years I was utterly convinced that nobody would love it as much as I do. The new Welcome to Leicester anthology has proved me wrong. It captures the remarkable and the completely normal about the city so beautifully that I realise now that Leicester stays with each and every person who passes through it.

I thought I knew everything there is to know about Leicester, its history and its culture. Once again this collection corrected me. Reading it is a wonderful, educational experience that only makes me feel closer to the city, rooting me in its fascinating past with poems like Andrew Button's “Ratae Corieltauvorum” and “Ruins steeped in history” by Norbert Gora.

Having only left Leicester a few months ago, I’m still very much homesick for the city. This collection allowed me to fall in love again and again with each page and by the end, it’s as though I’ve been back and visited the city itself. Each poem feels like a personal connection, like it was written just for me. I can hear the Leicester market place, I am part of the hustle and bustle of shoppers in the Highcross, I can smell fireworks after the Diwali celebrations, and if I close my eyes I am walking along Julia Wood’s perfect depiction of Granby Street.

Not being a football fan myself and knowing nothing about the game, I wasn’t particularly bothered by Leicester winning the Premier League this year. What I did love, though, was that the city came alive. People came from all over to our city to celebrate the success of underdogs. It resonated with thousands and that’s something that definitely shines through in “The Art of Winning” by Jayne Stanton and also “On Leicester winning the premiership” by Rob Gee.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite from the collection and I suppose that makes sense. It’s impossible to pick one part of Leicester that I love the most. Perhaps the best thing about the collection is the sense that everyone who has taken part feels proud of the city and it’s not hard to see why. Leicester belongs to everyone from all walks of life: it’s home, it’s beautiful and now everyone can have a small piece of it to keep.

About the reviewer
Kershia Field is a twenty-one-year-old poet currently working on her first poetry collection based on Mental Health and the stigma surrounding it. She has her own blog at


Tuesday 25 October 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "Silvija" by Sandra Riley

After the diminishing / dirt body kicked against kitchen wall /

Kept alive / what mercy has lessened / quietened as we speak

Of light / spoiled / cry-babying / a bunkum transubstantiated

Our cunning remains within. (“FARTHER / FATHER”)

Ottawa poet (by way of Saskatchewan) Sandra Ridley’s fourth trade poetry title is Silvija (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016). Following her collections Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009), Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011), and The Counting House (BookThug, 2013), Silvija is a book-length suite broken into “five feverish elegies,” composed as a “linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.” Ridley’s poetry has long managed to be remarkably precise in detail while concurrently evasive, and yet, the poems that make up Silvija can be seen as incredibly revealing, writing:

You are no less dangerous than you were as you drag

Your bones / field stones / we never once wept upon

The firmament / eight children left with the lone wife

Who would not carry the quiet / the final cardiac pall

Paled thirty years / crescent moons / scars strapped

Below the heart. (“FARTHER / FATHER”)

The poems in Silvija still manage to maintain her particular flavour of evasiveness. Ridley’s Silvija takes its title from the name of her dedicatee, a “Silvija Barons,” coupled with dictionary definitions of “Silva” and “Silvan, Silvana, Silvanæ” that open the collection, suggesting a compounded definition involving a wooded area, a creature from a wooded area and the writing produced about a wooded area. Still, Silvija includes elements that are possibly more revealing than her previous collections, exploring and attempting meaning out of a poetry of violence, trauma and healing, and furthering her capacity for the book-length exploration. And, as much as her elegies hold together as a single, extended unit, two sections were actually composed as part of other projects, such as the section “CLASP,” composed as a response to Gatineau artist Michèle Provost’s multiform art installation, “Playlist,” or an early version of “VIGIL / VESTIGE” commissioned as “an engagement with Petro Isztin’s photo installation, ‘Study of Structure and Form.’”

While the effect of Ridley’s short phrases staccato and accumulate into a complex tapestry that refuses anything straightforward, the emotional content is raw, savage and brutally stark. There are epistolary elements to Silvija, writing a narrator speaking intimately and directly to an unnamed and shifting “you,” and the poems reveal a furious content of trauma and grief, pushing to comprehend and, ultimately, heal as best as possible. As she described, quickly, her first three collections in an interview at Jacket2: "the downwind effects of nuclear radiation in Fallout, medical incarceration, and the archaic and experimental treatments for tuberculosis and mental illness in Post-Apothecary, the trauma(s) of a relationship gone wrong in The Counting House,Silvija writes out the trauma of loss, whether through physical and emotional abuse or death, composing four sequences – “FARTHER / FATHER,” “CLASP,” “VIGIL / VESTIGE” and “DIRGE” – that are surrounded by fragments of the fifth and final section, “IN PRAISE OF THE HEALER.” Via this simple thread, she holds the book together through a kind of mantra, or Greek Chorus, allowing that for whatever elese has occurred, healing, and even resolution, is possible (and the “healer” requires acknowledgment): “You give my hands the weight of your body. // Rest in me. // What I mean is this is where I choose to die.” What becomes so compelling is the understanding that it is through the very act of writing that allows the entire healing process, as she writes: “If you can’t speak / write in a fissured / alter-language / Of nerve-matter.” Indeed.

You and I—confined to our scrying room. Every falter of the limbs and every muscle of the face exposed to view. You are what I am. You cause as much sorrow. In what worse way could we vent this rage than by beating this head against these walls?

Sing for me. You seized the words out of my mouth—who suffers the most? You keep it all in. Noise—no noise. You upset me, baby. And you can’t do that.

We’re never left alone. Consider what the means are—we can’t lose what we haven’t ever had. You asked for it. You won’t get mercy. You are no more a whisper. (“CLASP”)

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Friday 21 October 2016

Review by Erik Raschke of "Two Syllable Men" by John McCaffrey

After exploring white middle-aged dystopia with his first novel, The Book of Ash, McCaffrey’s new collection or novel or linked-shorts, Two Syllable Men, has brought us to a more staid environment, where everyday men are confused and dazed by the simple complexities of modern life. They are the button-down dorks, lost to NPR or sports-radio, who absently and unwittingly tail-gate in their minivans or rusting Saturns. They are former Ross Perot supporters and now angst-ridden libertarians who might quietly, secretly smile at Trump’s bluster, but would never vote for the man. They are the lost white man we read so much leading up to the election, but unlike Trump supporters, they are the kind of white men who are neither loud nor aggressive and thus have become more or less invisible. They privately struggle and scramble against the feminization of their lives. They are not afraid of sports. They coddle instead of cling to the specter of male-hood.

Each chapter in Two Syllable Men is named after a different male, each full of doubts, but specifically in their own way. There is Byron, who while hesitating before kissing a girl, thinks about his ex: “His wife, before they split up, often criticized him for being too passive, accusing him of being a counterpuncher in life, someone who reacted rather than initiated. He remembered their first date, when he asked if he could kiss her, and she surprised him with an angry response, explaining that a man never asked to kiss a woman, he just did it.”

In the case of Graham, after many desperate dating attempts, he meets a basketball player, Talia: “She was also an English Major. When I asked her favourite author she didn’t hesitate: ‘Somerset Maugham.’ She spoke for an hour straight about his work. I found her passion erotic and suggested we go somewhere more private to talk. She must have sensed my real purpose because she told me she had a rule never to have sex with a man until he watched her play basketball.” 

There’s Herman who “had gout and his doctor recommended hot yoga as a cure.” The story is an exercise in mental contortionism and perseverance as the yoga instructor, Carlos, dishes worthless platitudes like, “You can’t get anywhere in life without starting somewhere,” that leave Herman breathlessly exasperated and women yoga-attendees swooning.

The diffraction of short story collections can often be a struggle if the context and subjects vary. The thread in MacCaffrey’s stories hold, as it winds from one male to another. Although characters' personalities sometimes blur, their collective anxiety comes to a repeated crescendo as if these two syllable men were some consciously connected tribe dancing to a prayer ritual of what social therapists refer to as “precarious manhood.” McCaffrey’s characters are forever in conflict with the impending loss of manhood and it is within that struggle we find a very prescient humanity.

About the reviewer
Erik Raschke is an American author living in Amsterdam for the past seven years. His last novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2009 and translated into Italian and nominated for the Printz award. He received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and his short stories have been published in, among others, Guernica, Chelsea, Per Contra, Ararat, Reading Room, Tijdschrift Ei,, Promethean, 5-trope. His essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Hazlitt, Buzzfeed, The Denver Post, Het Parool, De Volkskrant and many others. You can see more of his work at

Thursday 20 October 2016

Review by Lerah Mae Barcenilla of "Lost and Found: Stories of Home by Leicestershire Writers," ed. Farhana Shaikh, Beth-Ann Sher and Richard Sheehan

From tales set in Swedish refugee camps, houses filled with history, travelling circuses and even in space, Lost and Found: Stories of Home by Leicestershire Writers (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) captures the diversity of voices that whisper and shout from every corner of Leicester, as they weave the threads to create a tapestry stitched with the meanings of ‘home’.

There are tales that question the essence of home, how homes may differ from one to another, yet despite it all ‘we all go home eventually’ (as in the story 'Zenith') – no matter where that may be. There are powerful stories that tug at our heartstrings, the heartache that gets lodged in our throats, ‘the searing pain of loss’. And it’s there, in the hollowness of words, the gradual healing of cracks as one finds a new home (in the story 'Not Home').

There are tales of maybes, what ifs and of possibilities ('Adrian'). Tales laced with memory. Of something fond, but fuelled by trauma amidst vivid descriptions of football stadiums – beauty in its ‘terrible simplicity’ ('Home Game'). Tales that explore the search for a lost home and its connection with our very identity: ‘I know I’ve become a stranger to them, and to myself’ ('Back Home'). While there is something raw and vulnerable, the honest helplessness in the words ‘I can’t find the way home,’ but also the strange wistfulness in finding home in music ('Zöe K.'). We see a battle between familiarity and unfamiliarity, between staying and moving on. Tales of memory and forgetting; of separation, exploration and travel. Of uncertainty, reassurance and acceptance, ‘This is home now. Just be’ ('Moving the Furniture'). Yet behind the nostalgia and hope lurk something morbid, an unexpected dark turn of events (as in 'Colour').

Then there are stories that hit too close to home. Stories reminiscing about the curiosity that comes with the first year of university, and the melancholy that the final year brings. The uncertainty and fear that haunts the future, that prowls what comes after ('Home From Home'). And lastly, there are tales painted with the inevitable passing of time, and a homesickness for something lost. The story where one forgets and another remembers, and I’m not quite sure what’s worse (as in 'Shelter').

But, perhaps, it’s just like as Hermann Hesse wrote: 'every path leads home'. In this collection of short stories, we are given the privilege to peer into the lives of others, to glimpse, even for a moment, what ‘home’ means to them. And, maybe, in doing so, we’ll discover what ‘home’ means to us.

About the reviewer
Born in Manila, Philippines, Lerah Mae Barcenilla is currently a third year English undergraduate at the University of Leicester. Her writing has been published in The Student Wordsmith, The Purple Breakfast Review, PETRie Inventory and Culturefly. In her spare time, you can find her highly-caffeinated self idly scribbling on a notebook trying to write her two-somethings every day or taking photographs of cherry blossoms. You can find more of her writing and photography at

Tuesday 18 October 2016

"Iraqi culture and arts in Leicester: Everybody’s Reading Festival" by Malka Al-Haddad

Written by Malka Al-Haddad, this article was first published in Alhadath International Agency, and was translated from Arabic by Malka Al-Haddad and Alexandros Plasatis

Iraqi culture and arts in Leicester: Everybody’s Reading Festival  

Malka Al-Haddad

The 7th Everybody’s Reading Festival took place across many cultural centres in the city of Leicester, from 1-9 October 2016. There was an Iraqi representation at the festival from its opening day, as postcards with poems, including the Children of War by the Iraqi Malka Al-Haddad, had been given out by poets at Leicester Railway Station. That was part of the event “Journeys: pop up poem library”, which ran throughout the festival. On every postcard there was a poem taken by the book Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge, an anthology of poems edited by K. Bell, E. Lee and S. Logan, and published by Five Leaves.
The Railway Station was chosen as the setting for this event, as organisers wanted to inspire the commuters with a different journey, that of immigrants and refugees, suffering on their journey across counties, the sea and the forests, putting their lives in danger to reach safety and live a peaceful life, fleeing from wars and sectarian conflict that forced them on risky and daring trips.
The event was a success and the postcards run out long before the end of the festival.  

During the festival’s seventh day, the African Caribbean Centre hosted the launch of an anthology of poetry entitled Welcome to Leicester, edited by Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa, and published by Dahlia Press. The subject of this book is to show how this city welcomes all people and especially refugees and immigrants. About 50 poets from Britain have contributed to this anthology, which features two poems by Malka Al-Haddad who represented the Union of Iraqi Writers. Malka’s poems describe the aspects of the lives of immigrants and refugees: their suffering in their homeland, and their grief when finding themselves in the new country mixed with love and hope to make this new country their homeland, as the old country was shattered, destroyed by war, discrimination and conflict.   

On the ninth day of this festival, there was a strong presence of Iraqi culture in an event called “Walls”, organised by the People’s Art Collective and hosted by New Walk Museum and Art Gallery – one of the first public museums in the UK, opened in 1849. Malka Al-Haddad was involved in three parts of this event.

Firstly, in a documentary film about Iraq, Noble Najaf, which was screened in The Lord Mayor’s Room. Directed by the French filmmaker Morgan Railane, produced by Al Hikmat Foundation in Iraq, it was translated from French to Arabic by Dr Mohamed Alkaraishi. The film focused on the city of Najaf, Cultural Capital of Islam for 2012, and the holiest city of Shia Islam as well as the centre of Shia political power in Iraq. The film unveils historical, political, religious and cultural aspects of Najaf City. It shows how the city was rebuilt and restructured after being bombed during the American invasion in 2003 and how the Mehdi Army fought the Americans in order to get them out of Iraq and gain independence, and how, later, the city sent ambassadors to European countries for cultural exchanges and introducing Najaf as the capital of Islamic culture and the holy centre of the Shia faith, where the Libraries still hold ancient manuscripts. It showed how the clerics hold high and powerful positions in Iraq and how all people in the city follow and obey them, how they influence the decision-making of the Iraqi government, and even how they guide ordinary people in aspects of their everyday life. Finally, the film shows Najaf’s arts and culture and how NGO charities attempted to develop women’s rights.
After the film, Malka Al-Haddad – who appears throughout the film, back when she was the director of Najaf’s Women’s Centre for Culture and Art – explained to the audience how Najaf is at risk from potential future Isis actions and the goal of Isis is to destroy this city and destroy the Islamic culture because the faith of this city is different from the beliefs of Isis.

In another part of the museum there was another event, with poets, musicians, and storytellers, and Malka read her poems and presented some of her artwork.

It was an honour for the Iraqi poet Malka Al-Haddad to represent her culture in such a prestigious place in this city, the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

Despite the pain and sadness in Iraq, the voice of the Iraqi people, through culture and the arts, managed to be heard in this European multicultural city. Iraqi culture was the smile of hope for Iraqi people who live in exile and, for Malka Al-Haddad, the experience of taking part in Everybody’s Reading Festival was like listening to Ishtar guitar.           

About the writer
Malka Al-Haddad is an Iraqi poet, academic and defender of Human Rights. Registered with Front Line Defenders, she has lived in Britain since 2012. She is member of the Union of Iraqi Writers, Director of the Women’s Centre of Culture & Arts in Iraq, and was one of first delegates to the US for the Iraqi & American reconciliation project. Currently, she is an activist with Leicester City of Sanctuary and Leicester Civil Rights Movement.

About the co-translator
Alexandros Plasatis is an ethnographer and writes fiction in English, his second language. Some of his stories have been published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, Unthology, Crystal Voices, blÆkk, and (forthcoming) Total Cant. He has a PhD in Creative Writing and is working on the creative writing project Write Here: Sanctuary with Cities of Sanctuary and Writing East Midlands, aiming to find and develop new creative talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community in Leicester.